Cafe India
1775 East Daily Drive
$3.95 – $16.95

Though you could call me a writer, I tend to think of myself as an eater, an eater who likes to write about food. Sadly, after reviewing a new restaurant, I often don’t get the chance to go back again. My list is long, leaving many lovely restaurants in my wake, so many places where, in another life, I could become a regular and sample every single dish on the menu.

Back in 2010, I wrote about one such place: Cafe India in Camarillo. I thoroughly enjoyed their food, but never had a chance to go back. Recently, a few friends mentioned it, having just discovered their popular lunch buffet, prompting me to follow up and see if Cafe India was still the gem I found it to be three years ago.

In the years since 2010, Brendan’s Irish Pub has now set up shop across the way, and just recently the new Camarillo International Supermarket has opened a few doors down. The shopping center is more bustling now and a prime parking spot a tad harder to find. But once we stepped through the doors, Cafe India looked exactly the same. The main dining room is still filled with elegantly upholstered booths and finished with shiny wood accents, formal fabrics and lots of artwork. And now, as then, the menu is enhanced by photos of many of the signature dishes.

As we sat down for dinner on a recent Friday night, our server greeted us with ice water and a dish of crisp lentil papadum with a side of chutney for dipping. A fun way to start the meal, these thin flatbread-like crackers were spicier and more flavorful than I had remembered.

We started with drinks (a glass of Ravenswood zinfandel for me, and a bottle of Haywards 5000, an Indian beer, for my husband) and an order of uttapam, a savory pancake of sorts. Filled with finely chopped onion and cilantro, this semolina griddle cake is finished with a hint of green chile that is perfectly balanced by a sweet and cooling coconut chutney. The uttapam offers a nice (and slightly lighter) alternative to the bulging samosas and crispy fried onion bhaji we usually order.

When it came to our entrees, we opted for dishes we didn’t get to last time: tandoori fish, lamb curry and a vegetable masala. Accustomed to ordering tandoori chicken, the tandoori fish — large chunks of salmon atop a bed of sizzling onions — is a nice change. Tandoori dishes are usually marinated in yogurt and spices like garam masala, garlic, ginger, cayenne and turmeric, giving it that signature orange hue. The whole dish is light and full of vibrancy, with the tang of the yogurt and a drizzle of lemon juice, a bit of char from the hot tandoori oven and a sweet cilantro sauce for dipping.

In contrast to the fish, the lamb curry is rich and dark. The tender, slow-cooked meat makes this a stick-to-your-ribs kind of dish, but with a subtle and understated curry flavor. The mixed vegetable masala (think vegetarian version of chicken tikka masala) is sweet and rich, a medley of vegetables in a silky sauce built on a foundation of tomatoes, cream and sometimes ground almonds, it is an indulgent way to get your vegetables, for sure.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty serious about my breads when eating Indian food. They are, after all, one of the fun avenues for getting all those flavorful saucy dishes into your mouth. We ordered the paneer naan, stuffed with housemade Indian cheese and flecks of fresh herbs, and, though not on the menu, an order of poori. For those who’ve never experience poori, it is puffy rounds of bread fried until golden brown and glistening with a hint of oil.

While the food at Cafe India was just as good as I remembered, we couldn’t help but notice that service was a bit off that night. Though attentive, our server was a bit abrupt; and while our appetizer and drinks arrived promptly, service was slow when it came to the rest of our meal. Though I was aware of Indian music playing faintly in the background throughout dinner, unfortunately it wasn’t loud enough to camouflage some of the issues with acoustics in the space. On this particular night, it was all too easy to overhear conversations at the adjacent booths, and to hear the regular clatter of dishes in the kitchen on the other side of the wall.

Overall, though, it was a pleasant surprise to find that Cafe India is still going strong after all these years. Aside from a few kinks with the service, it is still rolling out memorable Indian food in a nice setting. This time, I definitely won’t wait three years before I go back. When I do, who wants to hit the buffet with me?

Note: The all-you-can-eat-lunch buffet at Cafe India runs seven days a week and costs $9.95.

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